In the Dining Business, the Plaza Plays Smart

Food has always been an integral part of the attraction to gambling. As far back as the 18th century, the posh but illegal clubs on London’s St. James’ Street dueled over who had the finest French chefs; well-connected Brits spent their evenings and their gambling budgets accordingly.

Las Vegas casinos catered to players’ appetites from the start. Whether it was the heaping plate of cold cuts at the El Rancho Vegas’ Chuck Wagon Buffet or the broiled prime filet mignon at the Desert Inn’s Painted Desert Room, dining has been a hotly contested arena.

Today, with room prices driven down all over town and the games much the same everywhere (even if the odds often change), restaurants are a chief point of differentiation between casinos. As themed Vegas fades in the rearview mirror, what you can eat at a casino just about defines it.

PlayLV, the folks who run downtown’s recently relaunched Plaza, are keenly aware that their restaurant selection is a make-or-break decision for them. They’ve just spent a nice chunk of change renovating a 1,000-room hotel in a market that’s been declining, in relative terms, for the past 20 years. If that gamble’s going to pay off, the Plaza has to make an immediate impact.

Sensing the times, the Plaza’s giving a few downtown staples a local twist by drawing on home-grown renown rather than Food Network notoriety. That’s a clever strategy for a property that’s never going to dazzle potential visitors with elaborate fountains or half-acre penthouse suites. Instead, it’s going to have to rely on guests making a much more basic connection to the casino. Oscar Goodman’s forthcoming steakhouse does just that, tying one of downtown’s most famous figures to the property.

In that light, recruiting chef Terence Fong, owner of Henderson’s Island Sushi and Hawaiian Grill, to open a branch of his popular Eastern Avenue eatery in the Plaza was a masterstroke for two reasons. First, Fong is a casino veteran who spent years at Caesars Palace and with Wolfgang Puck; he worked in some of the city’s most historic restaurants (Bacchanal, Andre’s) before leaving the Strip to spend more time with his family and, ultimately, to pour his energy into Island Sushi. He knows how to run a casino eatery.

Second, bringing in Fong, a Honolulu native who can serve up unparalleled garlic chicken and poke, is a shot across the bow of the neighboring California Hotel and Casino. The acorn from which Boyd Gaming’s downtown empire grew, the California caters almost exclusively to Hawaiian package tourists, for whom food is a very big part of the deal. Once word really gets out, Fong thinks, Aloha State visitors will be crossing Fremont Street nightly—and, his Plaza hosts hope, staying awhile to gamble after they’ve polished off the last of their haupia malasadas.

Fong’s father, who brought junkets to Las Vegas more than 40 years ago, might approve. Fong has been in Las Vegas since coming here 33 years ago to attend UNLV, and has a keen eye for what works in its culinary scene. Three years ago, he saw that the recession would be laying waste to high-end dining and doubled down on affordable Island Sushi. Moving away from the high end has let Fong reconnect with his cultural roots while testing his skills.

“There’s a lot more labor involved,” Fong says, comparing Island to the high-end Strip restaurants he’s helmed. “The customers aren’t spending as much, but we have to provide a good product at a reasonable price while being consistent.

“It’s easy buying Chilean sea bass at $22 a pound and charging $38 for it. Here, we’re buying yellowtail—which isn’t cheap—and charging a neighborhood price. That’s what’s going to separate us from everyone else. They appreciate what we’re doing for them.”

Yet Fong wants to do more than serve $6.50 spicy tuna rolls downtown. He was offered a chance to open in Main Street Station, under the Boyd Gaming umbrella, seemingly a can’t-lose venue for a Hawaiian restaurant. He turned it down after PlayLV president Tony Santo reached out to him. Initially skeptical—after all, this was the Plaza—he decided to move in after seeing the renovation plans, and looking at the possibilities to go beyond niche. With the Plaza’s front-and-center location, Fong wants to make Island Sushi the go-to lunch stop for the growing downtown business community, particularly once the new City Hall opens across the street and Zappos moves in down the road.

A renovated classic hotel, a veteran casino chef reaching out to locals. The Plaza’s game plan is another example of how downtown has responded to the recession with creativity and a solid instinct for the area’s identity.